Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Conversation with Becky Wasserman - Part 1

The American wine icon Becky Wasserman is in New York City to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Le Serbet, her wine exporting company. Becky got started when very few people here in the United States knew anything about wine from Burgundy, and when very little was available in retail shops. She is considered to be one of the architects of the Burgundy wine market and she is respected and admired by everyone I know. Becky works in Beaune and lives with her husband Russell in a village called Bouilland, in "the back coast" behind Savigny-lès-Beaune.

I was lucky enough to spend a few hours the other day with Becky and her son Peter. It was my first time meeting her and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear the story of how she created her business, to hear about her and Peter's experiences as Burgundy wine merchants. I found them both to be absolutely lovely people, easy going and down-to-earth. They are wine rock-stars, but they are the gentle folk who you want as your neighbors (although I don't know how loud she likes her music), your co-workers, or your lunch companions.

I did my best taking notes, but my transcription of our conversation is mostly paraphrased. Also, both Becky and Peter were answering my questions and our discussion was lively - I am not always sure whether it was Becky or Peter who said certain things, and you'll just have to forgive me for that. They share about 50% of their DNA, so who said what isn't so big of a deal, is it?

BG: How did you get started in the wine business?

BW: (Lots of awkward laughing with Peter immediately ensues) I was an artist's wife. We moved from Philadelphia to Burgundy in 1968 for my husband's art. As a girl in Manhattan, anything French made me shiver, so this was a dream for me. I had two young sons. My husband was a wine connoisseur - there weren't many wine collectors back then. He was, however, a collector of mistresses, and so our marriage was ending. I knew that I needed financial independence so I wouldn't have to rely on my husband after we parted ways. I was thinking about work as a bilingual receptionist at one of the Beaune hotels, but I knew a cooper in Saint Romain who asked a favor of me. He was owed a debt and he asked if I would go to California to get the money from this wine maker.

BG: Was this a pulp-fiction underworld kind of assignment for you - did you carry a pistol?

BW: (Smiles generously) No.

BG: (Shifts uncomfortably in chair) Okay, go on. Sorry.

BW: I developed a small business brokering sales between this cooper and California wine makers. I would take the California wine makers to taste at the famous domaines, I would translate for them, and translate their negotiations buying barrels. I can't remember who it was, but I think it was Diamond Wine Merchants in California, he asked me for a list of producers to import, and that was the first list I did.

BG: Which producers were on the list?

BW: Pousse d'Or, when Gerard Potel was making the wines, Aubert de Villaines wines from Bouzeron, Burguet, Bachelet, Roty, although that didn't last long, some producers from the Mâconnais and something from Corbières. This was pioneer work - they bought a few cases and tried to place them. Then a second importer asked for a list, and then a third took my selections. I was Kermit Lynch's agent in Beaune from 1977 - 1981 also.

BG: Were you working on your own business at the same time?

BW: No, he liked to keep things exclusive.

BG: How long did it take to make your's a workable and successful business?

BW: (laughing) 20 years.

BG: Honestly?

BW: Yes, it's hard to earn money when you only work with quality.

BG: What was the biggest challenge you faced in business?

BW: In any business, the lovely parts are lovely, and people always think that my business is all lovely. But that's this much of it (holds up two fingers pinched together), and then there is a lot of work that's just business. Getting people to pay their bills was difficult at first. The French union rules weren't easy to navigate - we had truckers who would arrive at a domaine, but wouldn't load wine onto the trucks. Or they wouldn't unload it. There could be an old lady and her grandchild and no one else there, but the driver would not lift those cases.

BG: Wait a minute - how could people just not pay their bills? Wouldn't that mean no one would work with them?

PW: It happens all the time. People pay according to a schedule, not upon delivery. And if they didn't pay, it could take years to sort out a resolution. Nowadays our importers are fantastic about this - they all pay on time. If one runs into trouble and cannot pay, we work something out together. but in the beginning, this was a real problem.

BG: You mentioned that the lovely parts are lovely. What are those parts?

BW: There are moments of unimaginable and gorgeous pleasure. Standing in the vineyards, realizing that the interaction between soil and vine has been going on for hundreds of years in this spot, feeling like I'm part of the cycle.

PW: And knowing that we contribute to the family lives of our 96 producers - they send their kids to school, they live their lives, and we have something to do with that.

BW: And knowing that we're fighting against the death of individuality. Despite the rise of artisinal cheese and things like that, there is a lot of pressure against individuality, and we're fighting that in what we do.

To be continued...


Peter Liem said...

"It's hard to earn money when you only work with quality." No truer words were ever spoken.

Deetrane said...

Can't wait for part two.

Term Papers said...

I am waiting for next step. I agree with you that hard to think and hard to earn money. But i damn sure about this.

Alfonso Cevola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfonso Cevola said...

So far so good. Finding great wines and then getting paid for them - oh yes, I remember those days. Can't wait to read those tasting notes ;)

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for posting this!

The French seem to have tremendous respect for BW, esp. in the Macon and Burgundy. My husband and I originally heard about her from a sommelier at a B&B in Bugy. They likened her to Robert Parker....but in a better way! Read an article about her in what is essentially the FR WS.....really made me interested in learning more about her.

Really looking forward to Part II!

A Bald Man Drinks... said...

Becky and her ilk are why we love wine, and why we are able to stomach what it takes to work in the business...

Joe Manekin said...

Peter's right. It takes a certain level of patience, commitment, passion, and missionary zeal to sell quality. And it's hard to make money doing so. How many people only truly sell what they love to drink, regardless of perceived potential to monetize their passion?

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